Humans are fascinated by evil. We wonder where it comes from and whether we ourselves could ever carry out such an act. Some readers turn to crime fiction for answers, while others prefer true crime. Of course, there is a vicarious frisson for the fan of either – the reader stands at the shoulder of monsters without being endangered.
Note: I felt very uncomfortable putting this post together, but for the sake of learning more about a genre I very rarely dive into, I pushed through. Just assume that I’ve tagged this list with every single trigger warning you can think of; this is disturbing stuff. If you think this might be too much for you, it probably is.
In Cold Blood (1965), Truman Capote
I didn’t want to harm the man. I thought he was a very nice gentleman. I thought so right up to the moment that I cut his throat.
Helter Skelter: The True Story of the Manson Murders (1974), Vincent Bugliosi with Curt Gentry
Since we place so much value on human life, why do we glorify, in a perverse sort of way, the extinguishment of life? The answer to that question, whatever it is, is at least a partial answer to why people continue to be fascinated by Hitler, Jack the Ripper — Manson.
The Executioner’s Song (1979), Norman Mailer
Historical, religious, and existential treatises suggest that for some persons at some times, it is rational not to avoid physical death at all costs. Indeed the spark of humanity can maximize its essence by choosing an alternative that preserves the greatest dignity and some tranquility of mind.
The Stranger Beside Me (1980), Anne Rule
The Ted Bundy the world was allowed to see was handsome, his body honed and cultivated meticulously, a barrier of strength against eyes that might catch a glimpse of the terror inside. He was brilliant, a student of distinction, witty, glib, and persuasive. He loved to ski, sail, and hike. He favored french cuisine, good white wine, and gourmet cooking. He loved Mozart and obscure foreign films. He knew exactly when to send flowers and sentimental cards. His poems of love were tender and romantic.
And yet, in reality, Ted loved things more than he loved people. He could find life in an abandoned bicycle or an old car, and feel a kind of compassion for these inanimate objects–more compassion than he could ever feel for another human being.
Fatal Vision (1981), Joe McGinniss
In the master bedroom, Jeffrey MacDonald was trying to speak.
“Four of them… She kept saying, ‘Acid is groovy… Kill the pigs’…”
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2002), Erik Larson
It was so easy to disappear, so easy to deny knowledge, so very easy in the smoke and din to mask that something dark had taken root. This was Chicago, on the eve of the greatest fair in history.
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith (2004), Jon Krakauer
Although the far territory of the extreme can exert an intoxicating pull on susceptible individuals of all bents, extremism seems to be especially prevalent among those inclined by temperament or upbringing toward religious pursuits. Faith is the very antithesis of reason, injudiciousness a crucial component of spiritual devotion. And when religious fanaticism supplants ratiocination, all bets are suddenly off.
The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (2008), Kate Summerscale
Perhaps this is the purpose of detective investigations, real and fictional — to transform sensation, horror and grief into a puzzle, and then to solve the puzzle, to make it go away. ‘The detective story,’ observed Raymond Chandler in 1949, ‘is a tragedy with a happy ending.’ A storybook detective starts by confronting us with a murder and ends by absolving us of it. He clears us of guilt. He relieves us of uncertainty. He removes us from the presence of death.
Columbine (2009), Dave Cullen
Psychopaths don’t act like Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates. They come off like Hugh Grant, in his most adorable role.